Emotion and the Mind

by Dorian Minors

June 2, 2021

Analects  |  Newsletter


Emotions are a messy thing, and defining them is a tricky business. Philosophical thought has concerned itself with the messiness of emotions since philosophical thoughts have been preservable. The primary concern is how to control these emotions. Unfortunately, the same instrument that would be responsible for controlling our messy emotions might be the reason emotions are so messy to begin with.


The rational mind is new, and it is weak in the face of emotion. Emotions motivate us to act, but our mind takes these visceral feelings and tangles them. Pay not attention to the mind or the emotion, but to the source of the emotion and its meaning.

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Emotions are a messy thing, and defining them is a tricky business. Philosophical thought has concerned itself with the messiness of emotions since philosophical thoughts have been preservable. From the most ancient of ancient Greek concern with temperament to the modern concerns of peer-reviewed academia. The primary concern is how to control these emotions. As Isaiah implores the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, we must turn away from our impulsive desires—those scarlet sins—and “reason together”.

Unfortunately, the same instrument that would be responsible for controlling our messy emotions might be the reason emotions are so messy to begin with.

Defining our messy emotions might be troublesome, but defining what causes emotions has not caused quite so much consternation. The reason for this is illuminating indeed.

George Mandler’s interruption theory makes a beautiful summary of an apparently complicated phenomenon. And Mandler’s theory itself is merely the re-observation of:

an extensive, but discontinuous, line of reasoning, embodied in the conflict theories of emotion. These theories started at least with Herbart in the late eighteenth century, reached full flower with Paulhan and Dewey in the nineteenth century, and continued into the twentieth century in some behaviorist speculations. Their common insight is that many if not all emotional states arise out of the interruption of ongoing psychological events, out of the conflicts and the discrepancies among them, or from the frustrations of actions. Curiously, there has never been any sense of continuity among these proposals. They rise and fall without building on one another.

Mandler, George (1980) 'The Generation of Emotion: A Psychological Theory' in Theories of Emotion, pp.  219--243 (emphasis mine)

But Mandler contributed something special. Mandler’s specific contribution is that the emotion comes in two stages: first we feel the interruption. A visceral response of the autonomous nervous system. This is the familiar theory, observed many times across place and time. Our bodies physically respond to an frustration to our psychological or physical actions. For Mandler, this feeling was very coarse—merely contributing a sense of valence, or “goodness and badness” of the interruption.

More interesting is that this visceral feeling, in humans, is then turned over to the brain. Here, the far more confusing work of emotions begin. For Mandler, and many since, these coarse-grained and bodily feelings of “goodness” or “badness” undergo a cognitive transformation. No longer shaped by the more primitive mechanisms of our body, but instead shaped by the enigmatic mechanisms of the mind.

One way to consider the cognitive by-ways our course, bodily emotions might travel are the various approaches to attribution theory.

Fritz Heider was also interested in the link between cognitions and emotions. He also coined the conception of a human as a “naive scientist”—the idea that humans spent an enormous proportion of their time creating “naive” theories of causality about the world in order to explain social phenomena.

This notion was the birth of attribution theories of emotion. The vague “goodness” or “badness” of our bodily emotions would take on more complex shapes according to the cause of the event which generated the emotion. For example, what was the locus of the event? Internal (you caused it) or external (someone or something else caused it)? Was it controllable, or uncontrollable? The various attributions we make about the cause of the event will determine whether we feel shame instead of anger, or hurt instead of hate. Our attributions are the reason for our emotional complexity.

A footnote-worthy, but important, tangent

Heider’s original idea has fallen out of favour in it’s most literal interpretation. The “naive scientist” in Heider’s conception was a fundamentally rational being who tests hypotheses about the world, weighing costs and benefits and updating expectations about the world accordingly. The flourishing of research into the human use of heuristics and biases in decision-making quite dramatically altered our ideas about this ‘rational’ human.

Instead, it has been more popular recently to think of humans as something along the lines of the “cognitive miser”. Here, the human much prefers the cheap and cheerful cognitive shortcut than the more costly cognitive work of rigorous hypothesis testing. As the coiners of the theory put it:

People are limited in their capacity to process information, so they take shortcuts whenever they can.

Fiske and Taylor, Social Cognition

Both perspectives, of course, have their place. And indeed, the emerging trend is something of a composite of these ideas. Various predictive coding accounts of cognition, notably the active inference approach, view humans as intrinsically driven to minimise errors between their internal expectations and the external world (like the naive scientist), but only so far as such a process outweighs the cost of updating the existing expectation (like the cognitive miser).

The upshot, at least as it pertains to attributions, is that the journey from bodily emotion to some more complex cognitive form is a messy and error-prone one, but one which will bear some substantial resemblence to the structure of the world around us. Predictable interruptions with predictable causes will have predictable attributions and thus lead to predictable emotions. Except for those times when it doesn’t—when the cognitive miser wins out over the naive scientist.

Emotions you haven’t felt yet

To add to the messiness, the journey from bodily emotion to cognitive emotion is not a one-way journey. The emotion can start from the other end.

Antonio Damasio’s somatic marker hypothesis is the extension of Mandler’s theory even further into the neural web of the brain. Mandler distinguished a ‘physical’, visceral, autonomic facet of emotion and a corollary ‘mental’ aspect.

Thirty years later, Damasio distinguished two ‘loops’. The first is the ‘body loop’, in which changes in the body are projected to the brain and perceived as emotions. This is the familiar journey from bodily emotion to cognitive emotion. Damasio takes a step further and describes the hypothetical ‘as-if body loop’ in which we can imagine and think about emotions ‘as-if’ they were happening to us.

Here, we might learn that certain aspects of the environment are associated with certain changes in the body, and thus certain emotions. These environmental triggers, or ‘somatic markers’, can therefore assist us to anticipate actions that should be taken in order to prepare us for some predictable interruption by acting ‘as-if’ the interruption had already occurred.

This anticipatory response to the somatic marker would then travel down to generate the bodily emotion, and the ‘body loop’ would commence—the transformation of bodily emotion to cognitive one.

The mind is the source of the problem, not the emotion

So, though modern emotion theory, from Damasio’s loops to the predictive coding accounts, take Mandler’s aging theory to new academic peaks, we mustn’t forget Mandler’s crucial addition. We feel the emotion—the visceral, autonomous response. This, any animal experiences. Seek out the good and avoid the bad.

What makes the human emotion so elusive is the point at which we turn that feeling over to the mind. A nest of half-remembered memory traces, complicated wiring, endless biases, and the tenuous notion that this mess is somehow more sensible than the rest of us, when really it is nothing more than an inner reflection of the messiness out there.

Working with emotion

The rational mind, therefore, is not well positioned to arbitrate emotions. Nor, perhaps, would it be sensible to do so in all cases. Instead, the rational mind is well placed to manage the environments that produce those emotions, which are themselves designed to motivate us to act. In this, there are two principle options available to us. We might:

  1. Manage our environment, or rather in Mandler’s terminology, manage those environmental interruptions to our routines; or
  2. Change the valence of these interruptions—have Damasio’s ‘somatic markers’ take on new meaning, and thus alter which emotions are produced from the interruption.

Neither of these opportunities require us to grapple with the emotion at all. Instead, we are considering what these emotions represent—the patterns of habitual preparations to respond that have embedded themselves in our body and mind; the interruptions to our routines those preparations are trying to rectify; and the routines themselves, as well as the goals those routines have been constructed to attain. These are the crucial ingredients to working with emotion, and the activity that humans of all the animals have the freedom to exploit—the freedom to choose something different.

Ideologies you choose at btrmt.

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